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The Antikythera Mechanism
According to the Great Year calendric logic shown in Chapters 2 and 3, each half-year counted along the Bull Leap fresco border’s colored rows of lunar crescents takes us through 7 lunar phases (in a vertical row) and then 22 more in a horizontal. The ratio between them is 22/7. That we call Pi, the number beyond final calculation that relates a circle’s diameter and circumference.
The Minoan Great Year Calendar measures out eternal cycles in days, moons and suns, and all but squares the circle. Each full year that we complete this way doubles (hello) the calendar’s high-sign toward infinity.
Coincidence? Here are some more that might relate a Minoan Great Year cycle to later Greek calendric systems, whose sophistication seemed to Nilsson “completely unprepared-for” (1920: 363).
Almost 100 years after Nilsson, that bafflement has continued. Bitsakis, Freeth, Jones and Steele, in their 2008 Nature study of the Antikythera Mechanism, noted that its highly sophisticated knowledge of astronomy—dated to around 200-100 BCE—seems to “come out of nowhere,” which of course means that its sources have not yet been discovered.
The basic physical design of the Mechanism is structured around a wheeled cross, shown above. See Chapters 4 and 9 of Calendar House for Minoan and Philistine examples of this probably-calendric form, and more appear throughout the work.
Missing from the photo above is a small dial that attached to the outside of the greater wheel. According to mfreeth.com, Wright (2006) and a number of video-animations on the Mechanism produced by these scholars for Nature (available at YouTube), the small central dial originally indicated the current phase of the Moon—a function provided by the Bull Leap fresco’s color-coded “circle” of crescents (Chapters 2 and 3).
Here are more of the Mechanism’s aspects that seem to point back in time toward the Minoan Great Year’s lunar/solar numbers and relationships, and their social functions, detailed in Calendar House.
The apparent purpose of the Antikythera Mechanism was civil and cultural. One of its dials bore the names of different Greek communities who alternated, within a cycle, as host-locations for the next Olympic Games.
Nilsson offers an efficient summary: “The great Pythian Games themselves were originally held every 8th year, and then [after c. 582 BCE] every 4th year. Since 8 years seemed too long an interval, the period was halved in order to secure a more frequent celebration, and the Isthmian and Nemean games were held every 2nd year, i.e., the period was divided [again] into four years” (1920: 364). As shown in previous chapters, intervals of 2, 4, or 8 years are all consistent with Great Year calendrics, and these later games alike were held “Winter and Summer.”
Why had an 8-year interval come to seem “too long”? According to the Mechanism’s leading international scholars, such Games were a crucial social tradition for keeping the peace: they helped to civilize the sometimes-bloody rivalries and competitions among those Greek communities by compelling people, with their ceremonies and rules, to get to know each other. New studies have shown the enormous displays of wealth and pageantry invested in these Games, not to mention an underworld of less exalted activities surrounding them. Rules evolved for contests including penalties for snapping a wrestler’s fingers or gouging his eyes.
What the Minoan Great Year and the Antikythera Mechanism appear to share is the central conception of a time-based cycle with applications in real-world politics and social behavior: a ceremonial system for the pro-active creation, refreshment and reinforcement of human bonds across community differences. (According to Bitsakis, Freeth, Jones and others studying the Mechanism, it may have been built in the Sicily of later Archimedes (circa 200). For more history of the Games and related festivals, see Anninos, Hannah, Johnson, Kyle, Miller, Neils, Perrottet, Poliakoff, Romano, Spivey, Swaddling, and Yeomans.)
A calendar tied to civil institutions had a likely effect of restraining “the worst” in people not by defeating or changing it, but by delaying and deflecting as much of it as possible with a periodic safety valve: sublimating violence into artificial yet compelling convention and play. Alternations, rules and guides are implicit recognitions of differences and “others.” That is still “the spirit of the Olympics”—perhaps the world’s most recognized secular yet sacred space, where competition in human context is never more worthwhile.
The Antikythera Mechanism is 2 large spiral discs and multiple smaller ones concerning epicycles. As shown above, each large disc is a spiral, and viewed this way, we find an S-form in their linkage; a form that has reliable reference to “tracks of the sun,” to alternating solstices and longer lunar/solar cycles. The Mechanism’s physical design and astronomical concerns seem to be rooted in Minoan forms of time.
In the structural and symbolic tableau presented by the throne of Knossos, we saw evidence in detail and color of a relationship between a doubled Great Year and the period of a Saros eclipse cycle (which is 18 years, 81/3 days; or 223 lunar months). That apparent Minoan mechanism for predicting at least one lunar or solar eclipse just before and after a doubled Great Year (among many overlapping and unreliable strings of Saros and other eclipses), might represent a basic knowledge advanced by the later Mechanism’s far more precise dial, which works (with 223 interlocking teeth) to track the well-known Metonic cycle.
Another epicycle tracked by its dials concerned the Exeligmos, a rare string of three consecutive Saros eclipses visible from the same location. Investigation with today’s astronomy-simulation software such as Starry Night might evaluate how well that dial corresponded to actual Exeligmos strings of eclipses in different regions affiliated by the Mechanism and/or its calendar.
“Evidently the Minoan tradition endured beyond the end of the Bronze Age in Crete and Greece,” Dietrich notes (1988: 20-21), providing a long and broad range of sites and traditions including the double axe. Chapter 5 of Burkert’s 1972 Homo Necans had already detailed numerous Greek mainland festivals constructed around an 8-year cycle. These included several at Delphi (where according to legend, Apollo had brought Cretan sailors to be his priests or “double axe men”), and featured aspects of descent-and-rebirth. And as noted in Chapter 9, Schafer-Lichtenberger’s 2000 “Goddess of Ekron” also presents clues to an Aegean-Minoan-Mycenaean-Cyprian-Philistine connection with Delphi. They cluster clearly around an Earth- and Mountain-Goddess with names from Gaia to Ptgyh.
When many independent observers study different aspects of a subject and keep discovering strongly similar structures and patterns, there is usually something of substance in their midst. Now that we can see the clear commonalities between the Minoan Great Year Calendar (circa 1500 BCE) and the Mechanism (circa 150-100), we have grounds to double back through time once again between those two points and see if there are any visible moments or mediums that might have borne such knowledge along down the post-Minoan ages.
Let’s look at the early Greek world with three strong new examples of research, and evaluate how (if at all) they resonate with the Minoan Great Year in Calendar House.
With this doubling-back we’ll look at almost 1,000 years of post-Minoan time—in rough halves. A few simple steps provide an outline of context for what’s below.
First, recall the Minoan Great Year Calendar’s central period (roundly) after 1600 BCE. Then, by 1400, Mycenaeans dominated Crete. Next, around 1220 BCE, lies the best dating of the Trojan War—and soon after came the Dorians (1100-900). Overlapping those times from about 1200-900 BCE came the Sea Peoples’ share of a Minoan-Mycenaean inheritance (detailed in Chapter 9 of Calendar House).
Let’s mark these first 800 years of post-Minoan time, then, with two events: A) the estimated arrival of the Phoenician alphabet in Greece (which became the basis for Homer’s writing), at about 850-800 BCE—and, B) the best dating of the actual life of the poet Homer, around 750-700. If scholarship is correct that the poet was clearly drawing from much earlier (Trojan-era) memories of events, it may not surprise us that other early Western traditions were surviving as well down these centuries.
They appear where we might expect to find the traces of a useful calendric cosmic order still giving structure to experience, and hence to artistic, social, political and religious life.
According to Florence and Kenneth Wood’s outstanding research in Homer’s Secret Odyssey (2011), this epic is the main early heir and carrier of what turns out to be the same lunar-solar and calendric cycle found in Minoan Crete.
The first clues to a consistent calendric pattern and structure within The Iliad and The Odyssey—the “turnings of the sun”—came from decades of study by American scholar Edna Leigh, whose unpublished papers the Woods explored and developed into Homer’s Secret Iliad in 1999, and whose observations they explored further in this 2011 work. While their study of The Odyssey argues much more about the roles of stars and constellations in Homer’s epics, this writing concentrates on what they successfully demonstrate of lunar-solar concerns.
For all the deserved critical commentary on Homer, very few before Leigh and the Woods had scoured the wanderer Odysseus’ life and adventures for a precise time-measure of his journey—from his leaving home for the Trojan War (which turns out to be at a winter solstice) to his return home after 18 years (that is, in the 19th; and that on a winter solstice too). Did Homer in fact weave these measures from astronomy into his subtle and consummate descriptions of the natural world surrounding these adventures?
The Woods demonstrate that Yes, he did. They proceed word by word through every episode, and give a strict clear account of lunar-solar time both in and amongst them. Here is an outline (based on Odyssey 43) that recalls Odysseus’ main experiences in time-order; and for each, the Woods show clearly that the astronomy elements and references are there in the poems.
• At winter solstice, Odysseus leaves home for the Trojan War
• After 8 and ½ years, Troy’s hero Hector dies at summer solstice
• At the end of the 9th year, Odysseus sails away from Troy
• Odysseus stays with Circe (Isle of Aeaea) for 1 year
• Odysseus stays with Calypso (Isle of Ogygia) for almost 8 years
• Away for 18 years, Odysseus returns home to Ithaka in the 19th, and the story culminates at winter solstice.
We can hardly miss that what frames and determines this lunar-solar cycle’s great period is a Saros-period lunar eclipse. No summary here can do justice to the direct documentations of this pattern that the Woods provide. But what lunar-solar signs comprise the essence of the calendric pattern they have identified in Homer?
New Moon/Winter Solstice, Full Moon/Summer Solstice—a doubled pair of events that end and begin a new cycle of 8½ years (“8 or 9”). A cycle that, when doubled, is flanked in time (preceded and followed) by a Saros eclipse of the moon and/or sun, which happens along a string of “18 or 19”-year anniversaries.
Perhaps the world of Homeric studies had until now considered the astronomical elements in Homer as “mere decoration.” Yet, what could be more predictable (and in plain sight) than that a master poet would ground such epic tales within the grand and practical cycles of nature as they were then known? Again, as with the evidences in Calendar House, once we know the reality of the lunar-solar pattern, we seem to find it operant in many ways and in many places along the ages after Minoan Knossos.
So here’s what we can say from Minoan Great Year times to those of Homer (1500-700 BCE). The independently detailed, precisely matching lunar-solar rhythm between them is either a pure but astounding coincidence, or more of what we might expect to find if the Minoan Great Year cycle was the real foundation of the Western calendar, enduring in many forms.
Now let’s complete our doubling-back through time toward the “coincidences” of the Antikythera Mechanism. For the consistencies seem to continue after the best-dated centuries of Homer’s life and works.
Recent archaeology has been changing the old conception of Crete’s “Dark Age”—between the centuries of Dorian domination and its shares of Classical and Hellenistic Greek civilization. Archaeologists’ reports are casting light into the next roughly-overlapping ages—from 900 BCE into the Classical 500s, and thence beyond into Hellenistic times (after 330, when Homer’s epic poems were officially canonized).
From there, the Antikythera Mechanism’s dating follows closely between 150-100 BCE. So from this point on, we’re completing the second half of an almost 1,000-year period after the end of an independent Minoan Crete.
The discoveries at Eleutherna or Orthi Petra (“Standing Stone”) manifest a Cretan community and burial-ground sited at an important crossroads near the great mountains of Psiloritis—dating “all the way” from about 925 to about 675 BCE. (Sources: archaeologists including Dr. Anagnostis Agelarakis, quoted in his 2010 “Interview” and “Makings of a Matriline,” and a 2010 online article by Bonn-Muller in Archaeology). This was an old and vibrant community long before, during and after the days of Homer.
The relevance here is not (so far) calendric, but cultural. What emerges is a highly-organized society in which a “matriline” of distinguished and wealthy women clearly had as much central importance and honor as the post-Mycenaean and Doric warriors. In life these women of Eleutherna shared genetic connections, perhaps as “a high priestess and her protégés,” and in death they lay completely covered in gold, “sequentially” in something like “a chain” of pithos-jars laid end to end.
Agelarakis makes it clear that old familiar Gaia was close to the root of their religion, their standing and responsibilities. Centrally, these included relations and communications with the dead of their Cretan family ancestors, and with the perennial complement of those concerns—the powers of “fertility,” the promotion of new life and plenitude. We’ve seen that timely festivals related to agriculture, and to ancestors and afterlife, underwrote Cretan traditions from the start.
This is not to say that Eleutherna presents evidence of a surviving Minoan Great Year cycle. The site does show an enduring, high and ongoing level of civilization hundreds of years after Minoan times, with unmistakably prominent women—an environment with a clear sense of tradition and continuity of order amidst great changes. That would have been essential to the survival of Crete’s then-ancient learning.
With the stability of communities like Eleutherna and the calendric traditions manifest in Homer, let’s pass now into Crete’s Classical times (500-330 BCE)—through the century of the first recorded Greek Olympic Games in 776 BCE, detailed above as calendar-based events.
Soon came the traditional beginning of the Western science of astronomy, when Thales foretold a solar eclipse in 585 BCE (Nilsson Reckoning 364, 368). Several generations after Thales, the eponymous Meton of Athens (in the year 432) was able to predict a lunar eclipse and bequeathed us the 18/19-year cycle called the Metonic. Across all these achievements, we find elements of the central concerns of Minoan astronomy and multiple traits of their civilization.
Thanks to Malcolm Cross’ 2011 The Creativity of Crete: City States and the Foundations of the Modern World, we can look further into the once- “Dark” Classical Crete. After a thorough analysis of Minoan and post-Minoan cultures, Cross details no less than 65 Cretan sites from the Classical (500-330 BCE) and Hellenistic (330-67 BCE) periods, and demonstrates that they were still pioneering forms of civilization—from the rule of law and representative democracy to an advanced monetary system and international trade—at least until the invasions by imperial Rome (circa 69-67 BCE). Let’s see what if any familiar cultural forms appear in their midst.
While the assumptions of previous histories painted Crete from Trojan War times to the Classical era as a Greek backwater, stagnating under a Dorian inheritance of militarism, feuds and rigid hierarchies of power, Cross’ new analyses find a politically dynamic diversity in and among Crete’s communities, a conservative tradition of independence and parity among powers that guided new systemic responses to new political situations.
“If codes of law existed elsewhere at an earlier date,” Cross writes, “none developed the rule of law before Cretan city states. While ancient Athens [of these times] developed a form of democracy, Cretan city states created constitutions and elected their leaders,” in their own tradition-based style of democracy. “The preferred mode of government was one in which an elite was democratically elected, periodically, in accordance with a set of written rules, thus seeking to avoid the weaknesses of direct (Athenian) democracy and the alternative of an hereditary ruling class” (66).
Considering what we have seen of Crete’s “lack” of kings, and their limitations on such executive powers, it seems striking that as Cross finds, “There was no monarch, there was constitutional government, and those in power were severely restricted in terms of the period for which they could serve” (66).
These laws—including a device that can little-surprise us by now, a system of time-based “rotation” (or, alternation)—meant “to reflect the ethnic composition of the island by ensuring that no one [individual or community]...came to dominate others” (99). “In Crete a particular form of popular accountability had been assiduously pursued from very early on,” and this rotation or alternation-system imposed strict rules preventing any office-holder from holding it again for at least a year, or in some cases, three to ten years (104). According to Aristotle, Cretan polities had based much of this system on “the laws of Minos”—an inheritance he described (however problematically) as “unchanged” (107, 114).
The “Great Code” of laws inscribed on the walls of the temple of Apollo Pythion in the south-Cretan town of Gortyn—dated between 600 and 525 BCE—has long been recognized as the oldest written proof of some uniquely-Cretan features of early Greek law. R.F. Willets’ 1967 The Law Code of Gortyn featured three examples that stand out also in Cross’ study.
First, a comparative social mobility, as when the children of a male “serf” and a free woman shared her standing; second, that daughters had any inheritance-rights at all in the midst of eligible males; and third, that while these laws were “systematized,” there was a dynamic simultaneous process “of continuous amendment through judicial interpretation” (Cross 80).
Part of what Cross reveals through a wide and detailed variety of sources and studies is that The Great Code was more than its laws: it was a mechanism or part of a Cretan apparatus whose function was to enable “officials to check up on each other…or to control rival aristocrats who had perhaps been taking it in turns to seize power or twist the top office to their own ends” (77).
Cross finds that while not all persons under these laws could probably read them, “these laws formalized rules that represented the wishes of the population as a whole, and not just the elite.” With a careful review of much evidence, he suggests that they embodied “a connection between Cretan law codes and emergent representative political institutions.”
“In Crete [as distinct from Athens]…laws did rule in the sense that all—however mighty—were subject to them,” even if “differentially” according to “social standing” and not by “ethnic origin” (98).
On these resonant grounds between astronomy and politics, it seems the more remarkable that Cross’ important study explores good reasons to wonder if the Antikythera Mechanism’s astronomy and features were actually born in Crete (see his pages 183-184). Others, as he notes, have seen reason to designate Crete as the Western “ancestral home of the heavenly circles.”
For example, “At least three of the months engraved on its Metonic dial are Cretan (Kraneios at Knossos; Agriamios and Appellaios at Lato).” “There is no reason to think that the celestial mapping that may have formed part of the world view of the Minoans was necessarily lost,” he writes—noting that “The Lion and Bull symbols integral to Minoan cults are thought to derive from celestial maps.”
Not least, Cross locates an inscription from Itanos (on the extreme northeastern tip of Crete) recorded in an earlier scholar’s report, and dated to at least 500 BCE. The inscription describes the “dedication made by a certain patron...of a heliotropion or some [technological] instrument”—whose function was to determine that day of central Minoan significance, “the winter solstice.”
While Bitsakis, Freeth, Jones and others speculate that the Antikythera Mechanism may have come from the Sicily of Archimedes (circa 200), others date it to about 150-100 BCE. For Cross, its creation and loss might have been just a bit later than both those dates. “The point,” he writes, “ is that when a Roman vessel carrying off the treasures of war goes down near a major island that has just been conquered [namely, Crete], it is not unreasonable to ask whether those two events might conceivably be linked”—the Mechanism’s making and how it came to be lost aboard a shipwreck full of plunder (184).
Such are the many-sided resonances between the Minoans’ Great Year cycle and the cultures that succeeded theirs through the next 1,000 years. For whatever these may be worth, there simply are no comparable bodies of contradictory positive evidence about the first ages of Greek astronomy and calendrics. The indications, we might say, are fair that the Minoan Great Year was a real calendric cosmology with a long and genuine Western legacy, which still lives on in The Olympic Games.
Whatever proves to be the case, be sure to someday visit the Heraklion Museum of Archaeology in Crete. It happens to stand at the junction of Xanthoudidou and Xatzidakis Streets.
Here is one vote for a World Great Year Festival Cycle, based in the actual rhythms of Earth, Sun and Moon, and shared by the planet in the spirit of Minoan Crete. As shown, the present Minoan Great Year ended and began again at New Moon and Winter Solstice 2009, and its countersigns arrive at Full Moon and Summer Solstice 2010.
Dr. Alexander Marshack wrote his untitled review of Herberger’s Thread of Ariadne in 1974 (complete text below), as one of several under his name therewith. Hopefully it can assist new evaluations of Herberger’s discovery, and in judging whether Calendar House has answered Marshack’s critical concerns.
If there is a better candidate than a Minoan Cretan Great Year for the mother of the knowledge in the Antikythera Mechanism, time will have to tell.
Dr. Alexander Marshack, Harvard University
Review of Charles F. Herberger’s
The Thread of Ariadne (1972)
from American Anthropologist,
June 1974, Vol. 76 #2, pp. 403-405
The probability is strong that the late Minoan culture maintained some form of lunar-solar economic and ceremonial calendar at a time when advanced calendrics were being practiced by the cultures it was in contact with to the east along the Mediterranean, in Egypt to the south and among the megalithic cultures of Europe to the northwest. A periodic, sequential structuring of Minoan activities would be necessary for internal administrative, economic and religious purposes as well as for the maintenance of seafaring, trading, and intercultural ceremonial contacts.
The problem is that the hard archaeological evidence needed to document such complexities has been nonexistent. The specialized skills of calendrics are perhaps no more difficult to develop or diffuse than those of metallurgy, architecture, or ceramics. Yet, of these, calendrics alone may leave no immediately obvious archaeological residue. The recent validation of a tradition of lunar-solar alignments in megalithic Britain and France by Thom and others is based on the rigid geometric, arithmetic, and astronomic analysis of a body of standing artifacts known and discussed as possibly calendric for almost a hundred years. The fact is that the sub-discipline of “archaeoastronomy” is now in a period of major theoretical and methodological growth.
Herberger asserts discovery of a complex lunar-solar notation in the border of the well-known bull-leaping fresco discovered by Evans in the palace of Cnossos. Validation of this thesis poses major problems. First, the border is more than 50% destroyed, and the analysis is based on an estimated reconstruction, hopefully accurate within a mark or two along each side.
Second, the “calendar border” is apparently unique. There is no known tradition of comparable notation from any culture of the second or third millennium B.C., yet a calendric notation and its supporting symbolism as complex as that projected by Herberger would require centuries, if not millennia, for development. There is, of course, an implication that some form of notation or record keeping existed for the development and maintenance of European megalithic calendrics, far earlier than the late Minoan, but the implication is not evidence.
Third, Herberger’s analysis presupposes an arithmetic, astronomic, and notational knowledge for the late Minoan that is culturally and cognitively many times more complex than the arithmetic and symbolic data evidenced in the contemporaneous Linear B writing used for warehouse record keeping.
Having acknowledged these problems, one can assert that Herberger’s positing of a possible lunar-solar calendar, notation, and symbolism, and his careful, detailed analysis of the difficulties that would be involved in maintaining such a notation if the fresco border were calendric, is a valid and valuable exercise. He accurately sets forth and then attempts to solve those problems that any culture attempting to cohere the lunar-solar periodicities arithmetically, notationally, symbolically, and mythologically would face.
Having assumed the fresco border to be calendric and having performed his reconstruction and analysis, Herberger then attempts a matching reconstruction of the Minoan agricultural year and its iconography and mythology. He reinterprets the legend of Theseus, Ariadne, and the labyrinth, and the images of the goddess, double-ax, horns of consecration, lion, bull, gryphon and serpent in calendric terms. The labyrinth is the calendric puzzle and structure involved in the theoretical eight- (or nine-) year renewal of kingship, a period tied to the eight-year period required for coincidence of a lunar solstitial observation and a day of lunar first crescent.
Herberger also indulges in esoteric interpretations of supposed Minoan number and color symbolism. This effort at a holistic symbolic synthesis is, again, valid and innovative, if not entirely certain, and one can disagree with any single interpretation.
The archaeological artifact that, for this reviewer, most supports his calendric hypothesis is not the fresco but the unbroken clay offering table from Phaistos, ca. 2000-1700 B.C., with its intentionally irregular border sequence of sets of symbols, apparently related to various lunar-solar periodicities, the eight-year, the longer eighteen-year plus saros, and a possible nineteen-year Metonic cycle. Again, however, the date for this knowledge is far too early in the present history of science.
Traditional scholars of the Minoan culture may thus find this “calendric” volume difficult either to assay or accept. This reviewer found it fascinating, largely because of the generic problems posed and pursued. I wish that the primary, crucial analysis and reconstruction of the fresco border had been more carefully documented, both photographically and sequentially, since methodologically Herberger’s entire case rests and pivots on this point.
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